The Propriety of “Conditions” for Justification [Commentary on Browne: Article XI (2)]

During the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it became common among Anglican divines to refer to works as a “condition” of justification. Alister McGrath traces this development to the fact that “the idea of justification sola fide came under suspicion, perhaps reflecting a growing concern about its possible links with antinomianism.” Hence figures such as Bishop William Forbes “denie[d] that it is faith and faith alone which justifies. Works cannot be excluded from justification, precisely because faith is itself a work.”[1] Peter B. Nockles likewise speaks of a “later Caroline emphasis on ‘Justification by works’ as well as by faith.”[2]

A couple of examples will suffice for illustration. Bishop Bull speaks of works in this way:

A condition being performed, may in a certain sense be called the means or instrument by which we obtain what is promised upon that condition. And this is called by some, the moral instrument. And if in this sense the word instrument is taken as the condition or moral instrument, we pointedly deny that faith is the only instrument of justification. Since, as we have already shewn, the works of repentance also are positively insisted upon by the Holy Spirit as no less necessary to obtain justification.[3]

In the same vein, the title of a sermon preached by Bishop Horne—“Works Wrought through Faith a Condition of Our Justification”—needs no elaboration.[4]

The question arises whether it is appropriate to speak of works in this way. Browne takes up this question in his treatment of Article XI, and in doing so he is well aware of the precedent in its favor:

It having been laid down, that faith (fœta operibus) may be considered, either as the state or the instrument of justification, it may be a question, whether we ought to say that faith, or faith and good works, or faith and holiness, are the condition or conditions of justification. The answer to this question, as given by many divines of high authority in the Church, has been in the affirmative. But the question is, whether or not we can deduce an affirmative answer from the Scripture.

Browne first notes that true justification must be accompanied by good works: “No doubt, faith and holiness are, as regards justification, graces sine quibus non. There is no justification nor salvation where there is not faith, love, holiness, obedience.” However, “When we state that faith and good works are conditions, we in effect suppose the Almighty to offer us what have been called the Terms of the Gospel”:

“Now that by Christ’s mediation God’s wrath has been appeased, if you will repent, believe, and obey, you shall be saved.” Conditions imply a bargain of this kind. Now there may be no objection to looking on the matter in some such light as this; but it does not appear to be the form in which the Scriptures represent God’s dealings with us. The new Testament seems to speak of us as pensioners on the bounty of God’s grace. Especially when justification by faith is spoken of, “it is of faith, that it might be by grace” Rom. iv. 16.

Faith in particular cannot rightly be characterized as a work because, as Browne points out,

Faith is itself most clearly “the gift of God.” [Ephesians 2:8] Therefore it is spoken of as the instrument of our justification, not because it is a condition, which we can make with Him, but because it is itself a gift which He bestows on us.

The lack of comportment between the language of “conditions” and the language of Scripture would be reason enough to doubt the propriety of the former. Beyond this, however, the language of the Article following this one positively excludes understanding works as a condition of justification—Article XII clearly states that good works “follow after justification” rather than preceding it.

Now one could argue that while it is inappropriate to say works are a condition of justification, there is no issue with saying works are a condition of salvation more broadly. This was the position of the mature John Wesley, who “denied works as a condition of justification,” but also held that “works were a condition” of salvation.[5] Isaac Barrow (the theologian and mathematician, not to be confused with his bishop uncle) similarly writes:

To each person sincerely embracing the Gospel and continuing in steadfast adherence thereto, God doth afford His Holy Spirit as a principle productive of all inward sanctity and virtuous dispositions in his heart, enabling also and quickening him to discharge the conditions of faith and obedience required from him and undertaken by him.[6]

In support of such a view, John Barclay has written extensively on the nature of gift, arguing that “the notion of the gift as ideally ‘free’ from obligation, and unreciprocated, given without a return” is “an invention of the modern West.”[7] Within the Greco-Roman world Paul inhabited, Barclay maintains, there is no contradiction in saying “a gift can be unconditioned (free of prior conditions regarding the recipient) without also being unconditional (free of expectations that the recipient will offer some ‘return’).”[8] Paul is a “parade example of this phenonemon”:

He simultaneously emphasizes the incongruity of grace and the expectation that those who are “under grace” (and wholly refashioned by it) will be reoriented in the “obedience of faith.” What has seemed in the modern world a paradoxical phenomenon — that a “free” gift can also be obliging — is entirely comprehensible in ancient terms.[9]

It might appear that Browne is amenable to treating works as a condition of salvation more broadly, as he repeatedly affirms in his commentary on Article XII that “good works wrought in Christ are not only useful and desirable, but are absolutely necessary for every Christian.” If good works are “necessary” for salvation, it could be asked, what objection can there be to saying they are a “condition” of salvation?

Yet Browne takes issue with this as well:

If we could make conditions with God, even after He had accepted an atonement for the past, it might be hard to say that “boasting” was altogether “excluded” (Rom. iii. 27). Excluded indeed it might be in strict justice, because the forgiving of past sins, and the accepting of imperfect obedience for the future, would be, of itself, an act of boundless grace, when we deserve nothing but condemnation. But still, comparing ourselves with ourselves, we might easily be inclined to feel proud of even imperfect obedience, if it were made the condition of our salvation.

In sum, the language of “conditions” is too evocative of quid pro quo bargaining, in which those who uphold their end of the “deal” can feel some pride, however small. Even if it can rightly be said that good works are “necessary to justification as concurrent or preliminary conditions only so long as they are not understood in a causal or meritorious sense,” it does not follow that it is prudent to use such language: “The Church frequently refrains from certain expressions which, though true in themselves, lend themselves to false inferences in particular situations.”[10] Moreover, the idea that the language of “conditions” is essential in order to preserve the necessity of good works against the creeping shadow of antinomianism is dubious. It is enough to say with Browne that works are “the sign, and fruit, and necessary results of that sanctification by the Spirit which unites [a man] to the Atonement of Christ, and are the necessary and inseparable concomitants — or, in fact, parts — of his faith, as much as light is part of the sun, or fruit is part of the tree which bears it.”

Notes

  1. Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 4th ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 256, italics original.
  2. Peter B. Nockles, The Oxford Movement in Context: Anglican High Churchmanship, 1760‒1857 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 258. See also C. F. Allison, The Rise of Moralism: The Proclamation of the Gospel from Hooker to Baxter (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2003), 189‒90, and Simon Lewis, Anti-Methodism and Theological Controversy in Eighteenth-Century England: The Struggle for True Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 37‒38.
  3. George Bull, Harmonia Apostolica, 2nd ed. (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1844), 18.
  4. G. Horne, Works Wrought through Faith a Condition of Our Justification. A Sermon Preached before the University of Oxford at St Mary’s … 1761 (Oxford, 1761), cited in Nockles, Oxford Movement, 259n153.
  5. Lewis, Anti-Methodism, 37, italics original. See also Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 72‒73.
  6. Isaac Barrow, Sermon 5 on the Apostles’ Creed. Works, ed. Oxford (1818), quoted in Paul Elmer More and Frank Leslie Cross, eds., Anglicanism (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke and Co., 2008), 201.
  7. John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 52, 59, italics original.
  8. Barclay, Paul and the Gift, 562, italics original.
  9. Barclay, Paul and the Gift, 562‒63.
  10. Allison, The Rise of Moralism, 11.

 


James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.


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